Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pirates of the Caribbean Ship and San Francisco's Ferry Building

Last week I read a posting by Lydie on CityMommy that said: Ship featured in Pirates of the Caribbean coming to San Francisco.

Two ships, the Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain were coming to dock in San Francisco, all the way from Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in Washington State. They will stay in San Francisco until March 5, 2009 (then moving on to Oakland).

The Lady Washington, a full-size replica of an 18th century 90-ton merchant sloop that sailed around the Horn between colonial ports, appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl as HMS Interceptor.

The latter is hailed (in the movie) as the fastest ship of the Royal Navy's fleet and is hijacked by Jack Sparrow and Will Turner to go after Elizabeth Swann.

Knowing that or half of it, it was darn tempting to set foot on deck the following Saturday at Pier 40 in San Francisco.

So high spirited were we that we turned up 40 minutes before opening time. Gasp. The crew was still readying the ship. Re-gasp.

So we took our combined four children (from 3 to 7 years old) to play at the nearby playground underneath the Giants Ball Park. They climbed on giant anchors, followed the playground's maze and watched boats in the marina.

Half an hour later on the dot, we were back and the children's expectations were high. Asked my 3.5 year old, "Will there be skeletons on board?" Why of course my darling, it's a pirate boat, isn't it? Well, well.

Alas for pirate lovers, the Lady Washington is not a pirate haunt at all - never was in fact, since it was built in 1989. Watch Pirates for the romance.

But the ship fulfills a much more honorable destiny: it is a sailing school vessel. A dozen or so crew members sleep on board and teach school children about merchant sailing during weekdays.

During weekends, they do what I consider "the fun stuff", recreating 18th century battles in period costumes with swashbuckling and canon firing during Battle Sails, or taking you out to sea during less dramatic but still heavy on sea folklore (sea shanty singing, maritime storytelling) Adventure Sails.

Lucky are those (48 maximum capacity on each trip) who sail the seas on a ship like this one. At 112 feet long, the Lady Washington is a fine and rare treat for boat lovers.

Three miles of ropes, a stearing wheel, steep stairs, forbiddden trap doors with rubber sharks above the keel, tiny sleeping quarters without an ounce of privacy, and a wooden deck: the works.

However, it seemed disappointingly small to me. I should have read Lydie's post closer or three times. She did warn about the "toy boat" feeling aboard the replica of the Santa Maria, one of Columbus' ships in Barcelona. In my wildest dreams, I had images of Johnny Depp sailing away or Orlando Bloom fighting on big tall ships. Tall yes, but pretty small in fact. Sigh.

Nevertheless, Anne, our combined four children from 3 to 7.5 years old, and I really enjoyed the visit. The people on board were very nice to the children and there were very few "no touching" areas for the young'uns. Plus, the crew were happy to answer all our questions, even the annoying ones about Pirates of the Caribbean (I tried hard not to ask but apparently not hard enough).

"It's a good thing for us in fact," said one of the men. "It brings us publicity we probably would not have otherwise. Families come to visit our ships and eventually help fund the program."

I shouldn't have been shy about Johnny Depp trivia after all!

As morning faded away, our little ones' stomachs growled until they all shouted "I'm hungry" in unison. Farewell Lady Washington.

The initial plan was to take everybody to Fisherman's Wharf to watch the sea lions afterwards but Fisherman's Wharf food places are touristy, bland and spendy at best.

So we opted for the Ferry Building instead. What a splendid idea. Saturday being farmers' market day, it allowed our junior troupe to taste a few selected dried and fresh fruits as well as olive oil.

We bought "cosmetically challenged" apples for applesauce, simple bread rolls for the children at Acme Bread Company, eggs from a Petaluma Farm for soft-boiled eggs the next morning, and fennel for a great fennel & pork loin recipe that Bon Appetit magazine published last month.

To reward the children for their exemplary behavior, we finished with a tribute to Italian gelati at Ciao Bella, an Italian style ice cream vendor.

I have to say, most walkers-by were really delighted by the sight of our ice-cream-covered children slowly enjoyed the humongous scoop they were holding.

Incidentally, their clothing enjoyed it too and everybody was happy. I can attest to the fact that the Valrhona chocolate gelato is very creamy and yummy.

Eventually, Fisherman's Wharf dropped out of the picture. We needed to be at Pacifica's Sea Bowl for a bowling-themed birthday party at 3pm.

Until we can re-enact The Big Lebowski in a blue Jesus jumpsuit, we'll enjoy bowling with the kiddos. Hail for the bowl launching ramp for munchkins. Highly effective.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Armstrong Redwoods & Bezinger Winery

Redwoods and red wine. What could be more representative of the Golden State? I wonder.

This week, my friend Anne is visiting from France with her two children. It is her first visit to California and she is staying seven days.

In just about a week, what could anybody see around San Francisco that would show them the heart and soul of the area? A drive on 101 south towards Googleplex didn't cut it as family-friendly. Since I didn't have many free days to drive them around, I set my mind on the Russian River and Sonoma.

Sure, there are many places to ponder on the meaning of eternity at the foot of redwoods as tall as football fields in the Bay Area. Muir Woods NM, Big Basin Redwoods SP, Portola Redwoods SP are just a few of them. But there aren't that many places where you can also go wine tasting in a heartbeat. Sonoma and the Russian River combine the best of both worlds.

I have a weakness for Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, perhaps because it is low on the radar of many redwoods seekers.

In 2008, it was almost condemned as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put it on the list of 48 state parks to close as part of a deficit reducing measure. Yet it is a lovely grove of majestic trees along one of the hottest wine regions of California, making it de facto endangered prime real estate. I was glad the measure didn't pass.

Last week, Armstrong Redwoods lived up to my souvenirs: stately, quiet, primeval and ... cool. Cool, in the sense that I did not expect temperatures to be quite that low.

As we proceeded up Pioneer Trail with a treasure hunt map in hand, I kept wondering why I forgot that coastal valleys and redwood undergrowth can be so fresh.

Fortunately, our four children did not complain too much. They were simply thrilled to find the Icicle Tree, the Troll Tree, the Peppermint Patty Tree or the Dinosaur Tree (not to mention the Armstrong Tree of course). It's not everyday you look up at a tree 310 feet high, as tall as a football field or the tallest roller-coaster of the world.

After our hike, the littlest ones were seriously hungry and so were we. Nearby Guerneville offers lots of good dining options but I wanted to offer my visitors the all-American experience. Bob'N Boy Burgers on Main Street did it for us. The French kids were overjoyed at the thought that they would have fries AND ketchup on the same plate; mine thought likewise. And the guy behind the counter gave us six lollipops to share in a paper bag. Honestly, it was just what we needed.

After that, I wanted to check out the sign that said "Beach" in the middle of Main Street. We followed the sign down to the riverbanks and found another sign, much less inviting: "Johnsons Beach. Closed November through May." Of course when it's mid-February, you're smack dab in the come-back-later season.

As we saw two groups of people beyond the sign, we nevertheless trespassed. Besides a group of guys drinking in the tall grasses, there was a man painting a figurative lanscape in front of the 1922 Guerneville Bridge. His name was Claude and he had fled San Francisco six years prior to live quietly in a town a few miles from there. "It's so quiet here," he said, "I love it." Indeed in February, quiet it was. I looked at my watch and realized that we must get going as I wanted to catch the last tour at the Benziger Family Winery at 3.30 pm. From Guerneville to Glen Ellen in Sonoma, it took us roughly an hour (getting slightly lost and all) before we parked at the Benziger Winery on Highway 12.

The reason I had settled on that one was the family-friendly factor, as well as nice landscaping. They had a playground and tractor/tram tours of the facilities.

What about the wine, does it count for nothing? Truth be told, I did remember having seen the name of Benziger in several places but could not associate it with a particular taste. The website, however, advertised biodynamic methods and that did grab my attention.

We arrived just in time to hop on the last tram tour. At the top of the hill, I noticed a wooden box and mistook it for a beehive. "We get the question a lot but there is no beehive around here. It's for the predatory birds to rest before they catch gophers," explained the tour guide.

Of course. If you use no pesticides, you better attract some serious gopher murderers to keep your neat vines looking pretty. Benziger Winery also has an herb and vegetable garden, as well as pastures for sheep and cows (further though, couldn't hear moo or baa where we stood).

Again, the idea is to create a biodiversity beneficial to farming the vineyards, to attract pirate beetles and other beneficial insects to get rid of your harmful bugs. Think of it as naturopathic medicine to get rid of a bad cold. It's a lot more work than the chemicals.

So we listened to explanations on biodynamic farming practices, stopped by the lavender bushes, envisioned gardens of beans attracting good bugs and were told rains drained nicely through the volcanic soil.

Poor Jack London would have loved this, as a farmer neighbor on his Valley of the Moon Ranch. As humble Sonoma suckers outnumbered by delicious children, we just followed the tour, trying to get said delicious-turned-rambunctious children to stop kicking the seat ahead of them or talking louder than the tour guide.

At last we entered the cellars, long dimly-lit tunnels underneath the mountain with 4,000 barrels of red wine and slightly less of white wine. At least that got the young generation to tone down their energy. Tunnels are always impressive, particularly if you can glimpse parallel tunnels at the end of long rows of oak barrels.

There, we were shown the Aroma Wheel, as in the different flavors you can obtain from a wine barrel by smoking or treating it different ways. My friend who is a French wine lover was pretty surprised by the process. In her mind, barrels meant aged first- or second-hand barrels.

The children opened big round eyes as I told them that all the barrels surrounding us were full of red wine. By the smell, it would have been an easy guess. Having grown up around wine cellars in the Languedoc Roussillon, I love the smell of a wine-permeated cellar.

Next came the wine tasting. To be perfectly honest, I was not thrown off my chair by the wines we tasted and thought the servings could have been generous. But this is Sonoma, the weather is nice and the scenery is gorgeous so don't go asking for the moon. It's not the binge-drinking after-work evening at your local pub.

The last item on our list was a visit of the playground, a treat we had waved at the kids all afternoon long. I guess at 5 pm right before heading back to the city, we couldn't hold them any longer without the playground promise turned reality. As they took turns on the tire swings or looked at the two lazy peacocks in their cage, Anne and I sat on a picnic table enjoying the remains of the day.

I like Sonoma. Too bad we got lost on the way back. Poor signage, not our fault.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When It Rains, It Pours

I was supposed to go mushroom hunting in Marin today. Good thing the hike was called off.

Instead I showed up at my writing critique group which takes place very other Tuesday at Cafe Rigolo in Cole Valley. By the time I sat down, African Nectar Rooibos tea in hand, two men were pointing at the window behind me.

I turned around. Hail was falling like tiny crystal bullets from a darkened sky. Boy was it falling hard. This storm is certainly catching up with the dry winter so far.

As more rain is headed our way, we can only celebrate. Pop the bubbly maybe? Some places have too much rain. We are the other tip of the (un)balance. So get your boots out and splash around. It's not going to last forever.

We are supposed to get 80% of our rainfall between November and March. The Los Vaqueros Reservoir east of Danville is currently 55 feet below average. Not looking good.

Bring on the rain!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Victoria Theatre: John Cameron Mitchell and The Origin of Love

You won't go to the Victoria Theatre for its ear-blasting sound system, for the size of the cup holders, or for the cozy central heating system. I just made them up.

However, you will go to the Victoria Theatre because it is the longest running theatre of San Francisco and they have one of San Francisco's most diverse calendar of events. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce a vaudeville theatre that opened in 1908, two years after the earthquake and fire destroyed the Mission District.

See the picture on the left? It's the then-named 16th Street Theatre featuring vaudeville acts, circa 1908. You'd be hard pressed to guess what the area looked like 50 years earlier.

In 1924, a local journalist recalled a time 50 years before when Mission Creek ran up to 16th Street and Harrison and "folks used to swim in it ... as far as the sugar refinery at 8th and Brannan."

Well, the artist Judy West currently advocates turning the route of the old Mission Creek into a bike path, green-space and public art site. But I'm digressing.

Today, the Victoria Theatre is one of the very few surviving single-screen old-school theatres with stages in San Francisco. Yes, there is a stage and it's as good as in any Rocky Horror Picture Show revival. Get up there, claim the mike and throw a bicycle film festival.

I've been to the Victoria Theatre twice these past 10 days and that's as much as I've been these past eight years. Why have I waited so long?

Ten days ago I attended the first night of the San Francisco Indie Fest and this weekend, we went to listen to John Cameron Mitchell sing love songs including the wonderful The Origin of Love from the glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was a long-expected treat.

The show started with cabaret singer Connie Champagne performing two songs from Hedwig (including the wig song). I didn't know her at all but now I'd like to hear her more. What a beautiful voice.

Then arrived Mr. Mitchell, the star of the show. After singing sang My Funny Valentine and Wicked Little Town, he read prose and poetry.

From the two first lines of Shannon Hamann's Niagara Falls (A poet can't change the world, but he can ruin your evening) to the poem called Fragment (it starts in the middle of a sentence and ends in the middle of another), it was just fun and unusual. Mr. Mitchell has a natural sense of humor and communicated really well with the audience.

After reading the epic journal of his trip to Russia for the Moscow LGBT film festival in October 2008 (festival that the police shut down because ... basically it was gay), he took the microphone to sing The Origin of Love.

As the whole room stomped the rhythm with their feet at one point, the Victoria Theatre really felt like it came to life.

Never mind the bad accoustics, the shoe-level drafts, the sketchy neighborhood and the weird square screen. Where else in San Francisco can you walk to a place that so enthusiastically supports the arts and offers such eclectic programs despite lack of funding and first-run movies?

You could go to the Roxie next door, the Red Vic Movie House in the Haight, the Castro Theatre in Castro, the Four Star in the Richmond, but... would you be able to grab a bite at Pancho Villa Taqueria on your way out of a film festival nobody's ever heard of?

The charm of the Victoria Theatre is that it shows stuff you will never see anywhere else. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but it's always original.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's A Gorilla!

What better way to announce the birth of your little bundle of joy than to have a Banana Street Campaign where yellow-clad volunteers hand out 1,000 bananas in the middle of San Francisco's Financial District?

I simply can't think of a better way. This is how the San Francisco Zoo celebrated today the birth of a baby boy gorilla at the zoo.

I was on my way to lunch at the Crocker Galleria's San Francisco Soup Company when I saw the lifesize banana and then the gorilla outside my office building.

Initially, I thought it was for a Jamba Juice marathon (they have lifesize running bananas to play "catch a banana" with children - motivating them to run 5K). Except there were no runners around.

"Have a banana!" offered a volunteer. "Why?" I asked. "It's to celebrate the birth of a baby gorilla at the zoo."

Indeed, there was a baby-blue street board with nursery type letters spelling "It's A Gorilla!" just next to the entrance of the Montgomery MUNI stop. And my banana was wrapped (as the SF Chronicle puts it "cigar style") in a green paperband saying "It's A Gorilla" and "Name our Baby Gorilla Contest" with the zoo's website.

I accepted a banana (actually two, since I came back later to ask questions) and pocketed it for my girls. Tonight over dinner I'll tell them that the zoo sent them a banana baby announcement for a gorilla and that we'll go visit him soon.

Actually, if you can't make it to the zoo, you can even see a video of the baby gorilla here.

Overall, I think it's a neat idea. The most curious part for me was the choice of that location to hand out 1,000 bananas. "Well ... we work in this building," said a man in yellow, pointing my building towering high above us. "And it's a very high foot trafic area at lunch time on weekdays," added a woman in yellow.

True, it's pretty central. The saxophone player who plays "My Favorite Things" next to the bus stop every day after 10 am knows that as well as the guy who plays bagpipes (or friggin bagpipes according to Yelp!) at the corner of Bush.

So, if you work at a central location and want to do something nice for your zoo or favorite charity, dressing up as a banana could just be the thing.

Congratulations to gorilla mom. We hope the baby naming contest won't yield a result San Franciscans will regret for the next 50 years (life span of a gorilla in captivity).

PS. If it's not obvious, it's a fake gorilla next to the lifesize banana. Don't sue the SF Zoo for unfair animal treatment...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Half Moon Bay - Negative Tides

Half Moon Bay is generally not a popular winter destination, unless you are a surf maniac and attend the world-reknowned Maverick's Surf Contest at Pillar Point, a few miles up the road.

This February, the sea is calm to the lay observer. Last weekend, Half Moon Bay's Pillar Point Harbor Lot C was literally under siege as hundreds of minivans, station wagons and other big cars converged to observe some of the biggest negative tides of the year.

When the moon lines up just right, millions of gallons of water flush out to sea and the reef becomes walkable. Only, this usually happens at night or during the week. But the negative tides during daytime AND on a gorgeous February Saturday? That was a gold mine.

The previous week, word had got around that anybody who was willing to walk a mile (from the parking lot) would be able to walk on reefs usually submerged by 5 to 15 feet of sea water. Pretty neat if you ask me. Come see above water what was under water an hour ago.

The kicker? A narrow time frame: the reef would start to be pedestrian-friendly around 1pm. Waters would retreat far away until 3pm and from then on, come back until after 5pm, all was back to normal.

When my friend Inga arrived around 1pm, the parking lot was empty. When we got there at 3pm with our friend Michelle, people were pushing crab cages to make space for their cars.

We followed the crowds and beyond the outer breakwater, finally got to the right spot: hundreds of people walking on reefs that stretched pretty far. Being a tide-pool enthusiast, I suggested we walk first as far as we could on the beach to get to the level of the farthest walkable reef.

This way, we'd be able to access the deepest tidepools before waters retreated, giving us a rare chance to see species that don't live in the high or middle intertidal zones. In other words: finding California mussels is a piece of cake. It's getting to the purple sea urchins that requires better conditions.

As we entered the reef, we encountered our first sea pals: white clams, limpets, turbans and of course, hermit crabs keeping the lowest possible profile.

Our three girls were overjoyed at their first aggregating pink-tipped green anemone, a somewhat lumpy and closed sample of this otherwise elegant free-flowing tentacular creature.

When you know that these anemones can clone themselves to infinity asexually, you understand why large reefs seem to be entirely colonized by them. Further down were giant green anemones and our girls took turns touching them, each time emetting a distinct "Squishy!" or "eeeuw!" sound.

As we walked farther and farther, the rock became slippery and the ocean closer. I was obsessed with starfishes. I wanted to find at least one.

We found not one but a wall of them! Clustered next to or on one another, starfish ranging from orange to purple clung to vertical sides of rocks.

As we turned around, we saw fields of mussels around us. And bending more closely on water tanks, we realized the round holes in the reef actually hosted colonies of purple sea urchins neatly tucked in. Hurray for tide-pooling!

At that moment, waves crashed next to us and we looked at our watch. Time to get out of there.

As we walked back, we remembered a chalk board on the wall of the Harbormaster's building. On one side it mentioned names of boats. On the other, the catch of the day. Suddenly, we wanted to bring crabs back home. [Vegetarians friends, stop reading here. Offensive material ahead]

Yes, anybody can go and buy fish fresh off the boat at Pillar Point Harbor.

At the harbor, we ran to the first dock and check on the chalkboard which boat has live crabs. Too late, they already packed up. Two docks later, we find the real deal.

A real boat with a real fisherman on it (who looks like he's been out fishing) and the guy pulls a crab cage from under water and gets four live rock crabs out for us. Check this out, San Francisco's Fisherman Wharf. Crabs that don't arrive directly in coolers!

Twenty bucks later (yes, $4/lb and a crab per pound roughly), we were carrying four crabs in a big plastic pouch.

I'm not a big fan of the plunging-crab-in-boiling-water part so I delegated that to my obliging husband. Our two girls looked on, fascinated by the whole process. As the first crab's claws disappeared under furious steamy bubbles, our oldest promptly asked: "Is this one for me?"

Not an ounce of sympathy for the departed. I'm telling ya. If she turns out to be a vegetarian later, I'll remind her of her youthful crab enthusiasm.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

New York - Morgan Pierpont Library & Museum

How would like to see Le Morte d'Artur by Sir Tomas Malory, a 1470 manuscript compiling for the very first time the adventures of the legendary (and historically debated) King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table?

Or the handwritten 1665 original of the blind poet John Milton's Paradise Lost? Or the handwritten 1695 original of Charles Perrault's Les Contes de La Mere L'Oye, the mother of all Mother Goose rhymes?

These treasures - and there is really no other word for them - are part of the extraordinary collection of the Morgan Pierpont Library in New York.

Before going to New York, I asked for some advice from an online network called Works For Me (a Yahoo! group for working mothers). Someone suggested I check out The Morgan Pierpont Library.

She said: "A great place to visit is the Morgan Library & Museum located at 36th & Madison, just 6 blocks from Grand Central. It was the former Morgan Family Robber Baron's house and was turned into a museum. I highly recommend it for a more "unusual" museum in NY. "

Since my conference ended at 1pm, I had ample time to walk there before thinking about getting at the airport at 5pm.

The morning session of the SCBWI Winter Conference brought us great talents such as Robert Sabuda (master extraordinaire in pop-up books, such as Peter Pan here), Tomie de Paola (the Strega Nona culprit) and the hysterically funny Jack Gantos (of Joey Pigza books fame).

The latter said: "Everybody can write the first chapter of a novel. It's Chapter 13 that is vicious." To the question "Why are we here?" he replied "You want to write a book that is going to be in the hands of a reader who will remember it all along his life."

True, I remember and cherish my childhood books and would love nothing more than to write a book one child will cherish and remember - if only for the cover's strawberry gum flavor!

As soon as they were done, wrapped up and all, I bid goodbye to new found friends and walked towards the Morgan Pierpont Library.

A few minutes later I was there and bought my ticket. After a could-have-been-faster lunch, I walked inside Mr. Morgan's library.

An absolute treat for book (and mystery) lovers. Three levels of binding-to-binding books of various periods, books that weathered happy and sad owners, natural catastrophes and countless wars. It was incredible. I walked over the guard to ask him how anyone could get to the upper levels. I didn't see any ladder.

"See this handle in the corner of the bookshelf?" he said, pointing to my right. "There are hiddden staircases behind." Hidden staircases? Tell me more, I like that. I was starting to feel in a medieval fiction already. It reminded me, on a modest scale (if you can call modest a multimillionaire/world rated historical book collection), of the gorgeous library of the Prince de Condé at the Chateau de Chantilly. I'd move in a heartbeat ... if they asked me, that is.

Since nobody asked, I climbed up two flights of stairs to the exhibitions hall to see a very interesting display of historic bindings covering from the Carolingians through to André Suarès' Cirque.

After that, I still had two hours to kill. I had promised my girls to bring them back something special from New York: bagels. A friend has suggested Ess-A-Bagel on 3rd street so I looked at a map (street numbers don't really help without a cross street) and headed towards what I fantasized would be a lovely tea place with trays overflowing with plump and shiny bagels as well as other delicacies.

On the way, I made sure to catch a glimpse of Sniffen Court, an unspoilt row of 1864 carriage houses (150-158 E 63th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues). The neat brick houses were lined up behind an iron gate and it seemed to me that they lacked the charm of London's mews. Too square, too clean.

I guess I was expecting to stumble upon the seven dwarfs' thatched cottage or something. But then, I haven't been inside these houses so my view can only be a superficial winter view from behind iron gates. I kept on walking, and walking, and walking, until I reached the long-awaited Ess-A-Bagel.

I almost missed it. Too many commercial signs on the same building. Looking at the photo, I can hardly make the dark green letters of Ess-A-Bagel. It's really for people-in-the-know.

Sadly, the experience was disappointing. I bought 8 mini bagels (4 plain, 4 sesame) but the next morning in San Francisco they were extra hard and even toasted, not as delicious as I expected. Add to that a nothing-special interior for the shop. I don't think I'll go again.

Noah's Bagels
will do just fine if I ever feel the urge.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

New York - SCBWI Winter Conference - 2009

"Rapunzel: Hair Extensions" or "The Runaway Bunny: Why did her mother leave him the f@**! alone?" or "Bob the Builder: Beyond the SubPrime Crisis."

That's the kind of humor you get at a children's books writers and illustrators conference.

These are actually jokes that were submitted by conference attendees for a joke contest whose baseline was: "These popular children's book characters are at Oprah's tonight. What's their darkest secret?" Love it, great idea.

The SCBWI conference started on a humorous note from co-founder Lin Oliver (on photo) who complained from having stayed up all night "to cook chicken for our lunch."

It stayed on a funny - no, hysterical - note when Punk Farm author/illustrator Jarrett Kroscozka showed us his kickass short film on the creative process behind a book called Book by Book: The Making of a Monkey Man. Karate Kid fans, spoof alert!

I can't wait to read his black and white (and yellow) graphic novel Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, a book loosely based on fond memories of lunch ladies hovering in dining areas of American schools .... and on James Bond plots.

From that point on, it was hard to beat the stand-up comic standard. Jay Asher, author of teen suicide YA novel Thirteen Reasons Why, managed to make us laugh with the making of his really-not-funny-book in a presentation entitled "How to sell a book in 12 years ... or less!"

Needless to say, the book is pretty dramatic so don't let anybody say I said it was funny. What cracked us up was how endearing was Mr. Asher at trying to sell various manuscripts, being awarded grants and prizes, and het never selling a single book.

Indeed, if there's an adjective that best describes how first-time authors get published, it's slooooooooooooow. I guess I haven't been doing that long enough to be a veteran but I'm already impatient.

At the end of his speech. M. Asher presented an award for longest unpublished author and the distinction went to a woman who'd been trying to get published for 33 years. Now that's resilience.

In the morning and in the afternoon, we broke down into smaller groups for sessions with various editors. I saw successively Kathy Dawson from Dial Books for Young Readers (a Penguin imprint), Scott Piehl from the Disney Book Group and Tim Travaglini from G.P. Putnam's Sons (another Penguin imprint).

After the afternoon session, the 1162 of us gathered in the big room to listen to Richard Jackson, a legendary editor in the publishing industry.

At the cheese and wine mixer, I discussed with Carolyn Fleetwood Blake, a Florida illustrator, Maureen Sappey, an Australian author of historical fiction, Darcy Pattison, a picture book author, and Laura J. Lagomarsino, an artist/illustrator. I also met the two SCBWI regional advisors for San Francisco, Amanda Materne and Cinder Rabbit author Lynn E. Hazen.

That evening, I partnered with two fun illustrators (Tara Callahan King who illustrated four books including Odd Velvet and another woman whose last name I wish I remembered) for a night out.

I followed recommendations from my friend Jenny and we headed towards the Campbell Apartment bar at Grand Central Station. The Campbell Apartment used to be the office of John W. Campbell, a banker who moved into Grand Central in 1923 because he had found there what he wanted - the biggest ground floor room in New York (excerpt from Grand Central by David Marshall - 1946).

He transformed the bare room into the galleried hall of a thirteenth-century Florentine palace. And so came the coffered painted ceilings (which reminded me of Fracostoro's Renaissance villa in Incaffi, Italy), the huge Persian rug, flowered vases, statues and wood panels.

Tara, Eve and I were blown away. As The Campbell Apartment is reknowned for its Old World cocktails, we obliged to tradition and each ordered two of the specialties, including the Shanghai Margarita and the Flapper's Delight.

Shortly after we sat down in plush couch and armchairs, a live jazz band started playing by the fireplace. For someone who hasn't been away from her children very often, the experience felt exceptionally grown-up and snazzy. Thanks Jenny!

Sadly the menu offered no food options so we hovered towards Madison & Vine, a so-so wine bar/restaurant owned by the same company. Their upscale version of the mac'n cheese was far from memorable.

Too bad the lines were too long at the Asian fusion Spice Market. At 9.30pm, the wait was still up to an hour to get a table. Crazy.

Our discussion went on and on until we were the last customers of the restaurants.

On the way back home, I fell in love with a frozen dripping fire hydrant on the curb. Tough life for NYC firefighters if the pipes freeze so easily! It was just lovely to see the crystal clear wavy ice chunks coming out of the leaking faucet.

New York - Brooklyn Heights & Greenwhich Village

"When you go to New York, make sure you wear black." These were the wise words of my good friend Heather before my trip. At a venerable age, I was finally to discover New York for the 10th Winter Conference of the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Heather's advice did not help me much as my wardrobe only hosts a lonely black tank top. Not enough to go about on the big apple's streets by freezing temps. However it made me very aware of the noncolor black on the streets and it was pretty predominant. But enough of black chit-chat. Let's get down to business. What's a first-timer to do in New York?

When I arrived, I met my friend Cherie in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood next to Brooklyn Heights. Cherie is a kids' art designer and lives there with her husband and little girl.

It was 5pm and we had two hours to spend before Cherie had to leave for another commitment. She took me to a local wine bar called Black Mountain Wine House at the corner of Union and Hoyt.

Dragging my noisy roll-on luggage behind me, I followed her inside in my bright red coat - I mentioned I had no black, it's scientifically proven. What a find.

If a friend of hers hadn't given her the address, we would never have found it. The outside is so .... sober? It's like they're hiding or something. Think wooden outdoors furniture, a wood-chopping block (cuz there's a cozy fireplace inside), closed curtains and a vague sign by the iron gates.

We sat down by the coveted fireplace and ordered a glass of red wine. The crunchy sound of baguettes being sliced in my back made me hungry but I had to hold my jet lag and appetite for a few more hours. A glass of Malbec from Argentine helped distract (read submerge) my stomach.

After a pleasant conversation, we walked back to Cherie's place and I mentioned a bakery shop I'd seen from the cab and that looked just fab: Sweet Melissa. Isn't Sweet Melissa just a great name for a sweets spot? An obvious wink to the Allman Brothers song. I love it. Wish I'd been able to swing by.

Instead, we stopped at the local Trader Joe's, the hipster Hawaiian-themed foodie market, at 130 Court Street. I couldn't help photographing the ceiling.

It was so white, adorned and clinically lit. It was also exceedingly high for a grocery store. It's precisely 48-foot high. No wonder, the building used to a bank. It was the Independence Bank building, a Renaissance Revival style bank building designed by McKenzie, Voorhees and Gmelin and built in 1922, with an addition, designed by Charles A.Holmes and built in 1936.

Good move Joe. Their Brooklyn flagship store is now part of the Cobble Hill Historical District rehabilitation process. Judging by the lines on a Friday night, recession has not hit Trader Joe's yet. Or it's really difficult to get moderately priced veggies in this part of the world. Pick the one that doesn't belong.

If I come back to New York, I'll make sure to revisit this neighborhood. It was lovely and reminded me of some bohemian parts of Paris' 11th arrondissement. "Smith Street is like San Francisco's Valencia Street," said Cherie. Restaurant upon bar upon restaurant and food smells to make your (my) stomach growl with anticipation.

After Trader Joe's, I finally got on the subway to put down the suitcase. I was getting tired of hearing it following me on the sidewalk. As my conference only started on Saturday morning, I decided to go out for dinner. I stayed in Manhattan at a friend of my mother's and confidently took the subway towards Greenwhich Village. Easy, no line change. Station Bleecker Street.

At 42 Bond Street, at another hidden location behind closed thick red velvet curtain, I found Il Buco, a restaurant highly recommended by Time Out New York and a friend of mine.

Good thing I was out solo. The place was jam packed. I'd be hard pressed to give you the name of a restaurant in San Francisco where crowds do the sardine-can squeeze 14 years after the restaurant's opening.

Il Buco is an antique store cum enoteca organically turned into an Italian-inspired foodie restaurant with eclectic rustic decor. Fancy that. I sat at the copper (yes, copper - very nice) bar and ordered. It did feel awckward sitting by myself at the bar and watching myself in the mirror munch on the olive oil and gressini but fortunately the bartender was a nice guy from Seattle who discussed with me on and off.

Also, I got a neighbor by mid-main course. As luck would have it, it was the owner, Donna Lennard. She is an interesting woman who seems to know San Francisco's restaurant scene like the back of her hand. When I asked why, she replied: "All the chefs are friends of my chefs!" Point taken. Chef is a tiny world. Say, two degrees of separation? Ms. Lennard is also a film maker and arts lover which is always nice.

She was kind enough to get me a sliver of the restaurant's scrumptious chocolate almond torte - in addition to my already ordered yummy plate of ricotta fritters with pomegranate syrup. When you offer chocolate to a deprived chocoholic, you always score very high! Thanks Ms. Lennard.

Dessert signed the end of the day for me as I needed to get up early to be at the conference on the following day. Again, I hopped on the subway but got it wrong. Hey, even kung-fu masters need to hone their skills through trial and error. I was actually headed towards Brooklyn Bridge and turned back after four stations (that's how long it took me to figure things out) to find my way home.

Sheesh, getting lost on the subway on the first day. What a young nut!